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Editorial: Building a new world

Social transformation is a prerequisite to securing lasting political change, writes Sarah-Jayne Clifton

April 20, 2012
4 min read

Following a series of evictions worldwide, including that of the camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral, the Occupy movement is actively assessing its modes of organising and thinking about how these might be developed in the next phase of the movement.

Here in the UK, the eviction of the St Paul’s camp has revived age-old debates on the left about the strengths and limits of horizontal, non-hierarchical organising. Alongside acknowledgement of Occupy’s massive success in putting a structural critique of the financial system on the public agenda, many sympathisers are repeating the same critical questions: what are the demands? what is the strategy? did it make a difference?

Of course these are important questions, but they are rooted in an understanding of politics focused overwhelmingly on immediate and institutionalised results. Occupy is not a political lobbying organisation trying to formulate policy messages to communicate to elites. Assessing it solely on these terms misses a whole dimension of the change that Occupy and other horizontal spaces are advancing. This involves a lasting social transformation – a slow but sticky building of empowerment, political voice and expectations of political involvement, and skills and methods of collective organising that can be shared with others and transferred to other spaces. This transformation, hidden in cultural forms, is an essential prerequisite to securing lasting political change. But it is hard to measure, or even see happening, and therefore often undervalued.

How, for example, could we measure the potential for change created by the debates and workshops in the ‘Tent City University’? Or the personal transformations experienced by those who engaged in participative decision making for the first time in their lives in the general assemblies? What about those who learnt other new practical and organising skills that they will take to the next occupation, protest or mobilisation and help make that stronger and more effective? Clues to potential answers lie in comparable movements of the recent past. Significant numbers of people trained and empowered through the Climate Camp network play key catalyst roles in UK Uncut, the student movement and Occupy, to name only a few.

It is important to ensure that the lessons emerging from Occupy inform the future of the struggle against corporate power. In this issue, Josh Healey reports on experiences from Occupy Oakland that highlight what he sees as some of the limits of non-hierarchical organising, including how small groups have taken the banner of Occupy Oakland towards more violent tactics, which he argues has served to undermine its popular base.

Elsewhere this issue looks at other attempts to build democratic and participatory counter institutions. One such model is that of co-operatives, which Robin Murray argues can form the basis of an alternative, more equitable, more people-centred economy. As with Occupy, a big part of the transformative potential of co-ops lies in the ongoing process that co-operative members engage in as individuals and collectives. Of course, co-ops also have potential to deliver very concrete economic change: greater worker control over and participation in business decision-making usually goes hand in hand with greater wage equality, more dignified and fulfilling working lives, and greater accountability of businesses to local communities. In summary, co-operatives are one of the key ways by which we can, as John Holloway puts it, ‘stop creating capitalism’.

However, there is no guarantee that individual co-ops will act in broader societal interests and not solely in the interests of their members. The experience of US energy co‑operatives which supported coal and nuclear power and the Conservatives’ drive to use co-ops as a cover for dismantling the public sector are evidence of this. Ensuring that the co-op movement is kept radical and underpinned by solidarity and sustainability across national borders is essential if its full transformatory potential is to be unleashed. This requires that co-ops themselves be in constant and dynamic interaction with broader social movements.

The lasting impact of such collective forms of organising on social relations and political identities is demonstrated in Francesca Fiorentini’s analysis of the legacy of the social movements that arose in Argentina in response to its debt crisis ten years ago. This can be seen specifically through the ‘recovered enterprises’ movement, where workers occupied and took control of businesses that were on the brink of bankruptcy and ran them as self-managed co-operatives.

With the devastating Health and Social Care Act set to unleash a period of unprecedented chaos in our health services, The Lancet editor Richard Horton predicts that people will die as a result of government’s insistence on competition, while GP Jon Tomlinson highlights the need to build ‘Occupy Healthcare’ – a movement to reject the idea that the healthcare needs of society can be commodified and governed by market logic.

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